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A loophole in the dream

When the General Assembly passed the Maryland Dream Act, lawmakers intended to allow certain students who are undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at the state's colleges and universities. It was a recognition that these young people represented an asset to the state to be cultivated, not a threat. But the law contained an unintended consequence no one seems to have noticed at the time, and the result has been that rather than lowering college tuition costs for these young people, some of them are now paying more for their educations.

The law, which survived a referendum in November, set out a number of conditions that children who were brought into the country illegally by their parents had to satisfy before they could qualify for the tuition break. Among other things, they had to have graduated from a Maryland high school, and they or their parents must have filed Maryland tax returns since they were in high school. The law also requires them to enroll in a community college for two years before they can transfer to one of the state's four-year colleges or universities. Among such laws nationwide, those are considered to be some of the strictest standards.

Though the debate was heated both in the legislature and on the campaign trail during the run-up to the November referendum, the aim of the law was always clear: to allow young people who had lived in this country and grown up here a chance to fulfill their potential by furthering their education so that they might become productive members of society.

But now it appears that task has been made harder for a small group of students by an inadvertent consequence of the law's wording. Some academically talented undocumented immigrants, just like their legal resident peers, enroll in supplemental courses at local community colleges, where they can earn college credits while still in high school. That's where the loophole comes in.

Because Maryland's law requires such students to graduate from high school before becoming eligible for in-state tuition rates, young people who want to enrich their studies by taking a community college course in, say, math or science during their senior year in high school can't do so unless they can afford the out-of-state tuition rate. That's a particular injustice at Montgomery County's two-year Montgomery College, which allowed undocumented immigrants to pay the in-state rate even in advance of the state law. According to The Washington Post, which reported Tuesday on an effort to close this loophole, students who want to get a head start on their college careers have to pay roughly triple the $400-a-course tuition paid by their peers.

We'll hazard that no one in the legislature quite anticipated this situation when the law was passed. It's a typical Catch-22 dilemma: If you're a high school student with the ability and desire to get a head start on college, you can't afford to do so — because you're still in high school.

Admittedly, we're not talking about a large number of students. When the Dream Act was passed, officials estimated it would directly benefit only a few hundred young people a year. The loophole in the law affects even fewer than that — perhaps 80 students. Still, the operative principle ought to be to make the law work for as many young people as possible, especially those who are in a position to take more demanding courses in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

This should be relatively easy to fix, though no doubt any effort to close the statutory loophole will spark opposition from the same people who opposed the original law. In light of the strong support the measure enjoyed in both the General Assembly and among the public in the referendum that followed, lawmakers should not hesitate to correct this problem. Maryland needs to harness the talents and skills of its most ambitious young people in order to compete successfully in the global marketplace, and fixing the Dream Act so that more of them have chance at higher education can only benefit the state and its people.

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